I have been a cancer survivor for a little over five years. Throughout my journey, I have remained positive, sometimes scared, and at times frustrated. The base of it all, though, is my belief that I will thrive and live a healthy, full life.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I went in for my first surgery, where doctors performed a lumpectomy. The goal was to remove all cancer cells, and ensure that the margins of this tissue they removed were clear. At the time, I thought that was going to be it. I would recover, and continue life as I know it.
With the pathology results came the news that the margins were not clear. I would have to go back for another operation to remove more tissue, and make sure all the cancer cells were removed. It was then, along with the consideration of my family history, that I decided to go in for a double mastectomy and reconstruction. The recovery was longer after this operation, however I was confident that the end was near, and I would be able to continue living my life "normally."
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Results of a massive gene analysis, published last month in the journal <em>Nature</em>, shows that there are <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/24/four-breast-cancer-types-genetics-genes_n_1909116.html">four major classes</a> of breast cancer, the Associated Press reported. "With this study, we're one giant step closer to understanding the genetic origins of the <a href="http://www.siteman.wustl.edu/ContentPage.aspx?id=6431">four major subtypes of breast cancer</a>," study researcher Matthew Ellis, M.B., B.Chir., Ph.D., of the Washington University School of Medicine and the Siteman Cancer Center, said in a statement. "Now, we can investigate which drugs work best for patients based on the genetic profiles of their tumors," he added in the statement. "For basal-like breast tumors, it's clear they are genetically more similar to ovarian tumors than to other breast cancers. Whether they can be treated the same way is an intriguing possibility that needs to be explored."
Men are less likely to get breast cancer than women -- but when they do, it's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/04/breast-cancer-men_n_1479739.html">often deadlier</a>, according to a study presented earlier this year at the American Society of Breast Surgeons meeting. The Associated Press reported that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/04/breast-cancer-men_n_1479739.html">men diagnosed with breast cancer</a> live, on average, two fewer years than women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, and are also more likely to have the breast cancer spread, have larger tumors when the cancer is discovered, and be diagnosed later.
Cadmium -- a toxic metal that can be present in foods like shellfish, root vegetables, offal and cereals -- may <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/cadmium-breast-cancer-intake_n_1347523.html">raise risk of breast cancer</a>, according to a March 2012 study in the journal <em>Cancer Research</em>. The research included 56,000 women. Researchers were able to analyze about how much cadmium each woman was consuming based on the cadmium-rich foods in her diet. They found that those who <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/cadmium-breast-cancer-intake_n_1347523.html">consumed the most cadmium</a> had a 21 percent higher breast cancer risk, compared with those who consumed the least cadmium, HuffPost's Catherine Pearson reported.
Getting six or fewer hours of sleep <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/06/sleep-breast-cancer-aggressive-deprivation_n_1854658.html">may raise the risk of recurrent breast cancer</a> among post-menopausal breast cancer patients, according to a study in the journal <em>Breast Cancer Research and Treatment</em>. However, this same link was not observed for pre-menopausal breast cancer patients. The findings suggest "that <a href="http://www.uhhospitals.org/about/media-news-room/current-news/2012/08/lack-of-sleep-found-to-be-a-new-risk-factor-for-aggressive-breast-cancers">lack of sufficient sleep</a> may cause more aggressive tumors, but more research will need to be done to verify this finding and understand the causes of this association," study researcher Cheryl Thompson, Ph.D. said in the statement.
A <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-10/acos-afo092712.php">smallpox virus</a> seems to be promising against a hard-to-treat form of breast cancer, called triple-negative breast cancer, according to a study in mice presented at the 2012 Annual Clinical Congress of the American College of Surgeons. "Based upon pathology, we could see that at least 60 percent of the <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-10/acos-afo092712.php">tumors were completely regressed</a> and the other 40 percent had very little areas of tumor cells present with a lot of necrosis, which is a sign that the tumor was responding to therapy," study researcher Dr. Sepideh Gholami, M.D., of Stanford University Medical Center, said in a statement. ABC News pointed out that this <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/10/01/smallpox-virus-may-help-treat-deadly-form-of-breast-cancer/">kind of breast cancer is notoriously hard to treat</a> because it doesn't respond to other hormonal or immune treatments.
Working the night shift is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, according to two different studies that came out this year. One of them, published in the journal <em>Occupational and Environmental Medicine</em>, showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/30/shift-work-breast-cancer-risk_n_1553058.html">breast cancer risk went up </a>among women who worked the night shift more than twice a week, with the risk being the highest among those who said that they are "morning people" instead of "night people." <em>The Toronto Sun</em> reported that the results of this study confirm the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which has a list of items and <a href="http://www.torontosun.com/2012/05/29/night-shift-work-linked-to-breast-cancer-risk">habits that may cause cancer</a>. The IARC considers shift work "possibly carcinogenic." The other study, published in the <em>International Journal of Cancer</em>, showed that breast cancer risk is 30 percent higher for <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/01/shift-work-breast-cancer-night-sleep_n_1612486.html">women who work the night shift</a>, with the risk being especially clear among those working night-time jobs for four years, or those who worked the night shift for three or fewer nights a week.
The genes that help determine a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/breast-cancer-risk-breast-size-study_n_1652292.html">woman's breast size</a> may also be linked with her breast cancer risk, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal <em>BMC Medical Genetics</em>. Researchers examined the genetic data of 16,000 women to find that seven DNA variations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), seem to be <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/breast-cancer-risk-breast-size-study_n_1652292.html">linked with breast size</a> -- and three of those SNPs are known to be associated with a person's risk of breast cancer, HuffPost's Catherine Pearson reported.
Just a little bit of exercise may help to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/exercise-breast-cancer-risk-moderate_n_1619175.html">reduce your risk of breast cancer</a>, though the more you move, the better, according to a study in the journal <em>CANCER</em>. Researchers at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill found that postmenopausal or reproductive-age women in their study who exercised the most -- from 10 to 19 hours each week -- had a 30 percent <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/exercise-breast-cancer-risk-moderate_n_1619175.html">lower risk of breast cancer</a>, though exercising less than that was still linked with some protective benefits. "The observation of a reduced risk of breast cancer for women who <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-06/w-eem062012.php">engaged in exercise after menopause</a> is particularly encouraging given the late age of onset for breast cancer," study researcher Lauren McCullough said in a statement.
For post-menopausal women, <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9541796/Breast-cancer-risk-raised-by-Type-2-diabetes.html">having Type 2 diabetes</a> may raise the risk of breast cancer, according to a review conducted by the International Prevention Research Institute. "On the one hand, it's thought that being overweight, often <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9541796/Breast-cancer-risk-raised-by-Type-2-diabetes.html">associated with Type 2 diabetes</a>, and the effect this has on hormone activity may be partly responsible for the processes that lead to cancer growth," study researcher Peter Boyle, the president of the International Prevention Research Institute, told <em>The Telegraph</em>. "But it's also impossible to rule out that some factors related to diabetes may be involved in the process."
Being overweight could lead to worse outcomes from breast cancer, according to a study published August in the journal <em>Cancer</em>. Specifically, the study showed that overweight women who have been treated for breast cancer have a <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/48800019/ns/health-cancer/t/being-overweight-tied-breast-cancer-return-death/#.UGxtN_mfGPI">higher risk of recurrence and death</a>, NBC News reported. "Obesity seemed to carry a <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/48800019/ns/health-cancer/t/being-overweight-tied-breast-cancer-return-death/#.UGxtN_mfGPI">higher risk of breast cancer</a> recurrence and death -- even in women who were healthy at the time that they were diagnosed, and despite the fact that they received the best available chemotherapy and hormone therapy," study researcher Dr. Joseph Sparano, associate chairman of medical oncology at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care, told NBC News.
Marisa Weiss, MD, of breast cancer.org, explains the different breast cancer stages and what they mean.
Then came the news that I needed to have chemotherapy. This is quite the curve in the road, and something I had to rationalize and sort out in my mind. After eight rounds of chemotherapy, I had to book my third operation to construct the nipples on my newly reconstructed breasts. That surgery went well, and I was on the road to recovery again.
By now I had realized that life as I knew it was no longer a reality for me. I was well aware that pitfalls occur, that may require surgery, or other procedures that breast cancer survivours need to consider. I was also more aware of life. With everything that had already happened, I became more appreciative of the small things in life, and grateful for what I had. Friends and family members tried to encourage me, and probably themselves, with words like "hopefully this will be the last time you need to have surgery."
This was not to be, though, as I have just undergone operation number six. And, although not easy, I am grateful that I am still healthy, and I am taking the time of recovery to give thanks, and appreciate the family, friends and work colleagues who have been my pillars of support over the past five years, as well for the future.
So as I sit on the couch with my two dogs; appreciating the beauty of my backyard, and sharing many laughs with my girls when they get back from school and tell me about their day, I realize how lucky I am. Yes, as a cancer survivour, I would't be entirely truthful if I didn't admit that I'd love to rewind and remove the cancer part from my history. I would have a much different life right now.
But I wouldn't have had the opportunity to be a role model to my daughters. They wouldn't have had first hand knowledge of how to pick yourself up and succeed in the face of adversity. I wouldn't have taken the opportunity to do the inner work I have done in order to make me a better person. I would have been too busy to appreciate the small things that life presents, and that most people take for granted.
So I am re-writing my most beautiful life into something more peaceful, heartfelt and meaningful. It includes the people who have accepted the new me; pitfalls and all. They are there to encourage me and will drive me to doctor appointments, or send positive thoughts when I'm going into surgery.
So take heart all you cancer survivors out there. No matter how many rounds of chemo or radiation you have to endure, or follow-up surgeries you have to undergo, take heart. The end result is improvement, and it usually happens for a reason. Embrace it.
Follow Andrea Paine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lifepowerblogca